When I saw Beat Street and Breakin, age 10, in Knoxville Tennessee, there was a context in the movies of a repressed liberation politics. That context may always float around movies, as an eddy in Hollywood’s vague cloud of humanism, but for a kid going to see a breakdancing movie on a hot Florida afternoon, liberation politics was a perfect fit.
In the mid-1980s it seemed as if filmmakers wanted to say something about how it was necessary for people to overcome a stifling situation in their lives, but because the terms of debate in Hollywood were becoming so narrow this impulse showed up as… dancing or riding bikes. Breakin was in the same kind of genre as Footloose and Dirty Dancing and Quicksilver but it was different. Kevin Bacon was the sissy in Footloose, and Swayze was a smoldering romantic hunk, but for me the hero of Breakin wasn’t hunk Ozone (née Orlando), it was TURBO (Tony), a real punk—he wore new-wave studded belts, weird berets, and hardly ever talked. Turbo’s the one who did the incredible stationary-bike-moonwalk thing in the opening credits and, crucially for me, he was just coolin while Ozone got in all kinds of boring “Save the Last Dance”-style adult dramatics with Kelly, our young white “modern dancer”, who later changes her name to “Special K” (the name was Ozone’s idea, which was strike three against him as far as I was concerned).
Where Breakin scored with its characters, Beat Street failed miserably, but the breaking and club sections were so much harder-core than in Breakin, and they stand out vividly. The energy was so genuinely wild that at times Beat Street feels like a documentary. 10-year old me had more of an idea that there were lots of PEOPLE hanging around this scene, people who fueled it. There weren’t as many minutes of actual breaking in Beat Street, but what a rush when it was there—this wasn’t just modern dance transposed in time and space, this was a whole different THING, and I wanted to be part of it. That thing, I realized much later, was hip hop.
Breakin wanted you to believe that Orlando and Tony were “dancers” like Kelly was, just in a different style and from a different economic background, waiting for acceptance into our world of values and aspirations, and maybe teaching us a thing or two along the way, akin perhaps to the self-congratulatory insistence that graffitti writing is an “art”—okay, but does it HAVE to be? The cumbersome process of moving entire walls into museums—which has been done—invites the question not of whether graffitti writing is “art” but whether art is graffitti writing—is it accessible for anyone who wants to try? What kind of recognition does it provide? Is moving graffitti walls inside a gallery or museum perhaps the reverse of the movement that is required for art to succeed as a democratic form?
Beat Street didn’t so much confront these question as it kind of willfully avoided them. If Beat Street‘s dancers were making their own fun, uninterested in slotting in with established ideas about what dancing should be used for, the graffitti thread in the movie argued the opposite point: that “artistic” graffitti (which was created for the movie by fine artists with no graffitti background) is preferable to wildstyle tagging. Wild-style is that scribbly stuff that’s under your nose wherever you go. In Beat Street there’s a villain character named Spit—a kind of straw-man wildstyle “tagger” who paints a simple and clear cursive “Spit” (which in the movie looks nothing like actual wildstyle) directly over other people’s painstakingly drop-shadowed artworks. The implication is that Spit wants to springboard himself to fame—he’s only interested in writing his own name—and simultaneously degrade the honest and selfless work of others (work that we are allied with, because we can instantly recognize it as “artistic”).
But, aside from the fact that anyone doing this wouldn’t last more than a day or two on the street, wildstylers are totally uninterested in that kind of fame. They make their tags look more like Kanji than English. If you’re not “down with the scene” then it’s indecipherable as direct code, and that’s what you come away with: that there are movements in this area that are beyond your apprehension. This block is someone else’s territory, sometimes, even if you live here. The only message wildstyle communicates to outsiders is its own ubiquity, but to the right eyes the different tags are as recognizable as the golden arches, or other signs that litter our landscape unasked-for. No one’s going to put the McDonald’s logo in a gallery unless Andy Warhol paints it, and no gallery is going to put on a wildstyle exhibition that would have any meaning—a lot like breakdancing, which you could do anywhere, to the coolest music that your friends could find (a breakdancing show done on stage to paying theater-goers would certainly, Special K’s crossover ambitions aside, miss the point), wildstyle’s value is in its cheapness and proximity. Alas, like Breakin‘s take on breakdancing, Beat Street preferred a humanist story of graf writers as noble savages creating “outsider art” that perhaps one day would be recognized as triumphs in a traditional sense. Besides Rae Dawn Chong, these are the most glaringly dated aspects of both these movies. But even though Beat Street kind of whiffed on the specifics, I found the story of Spit instructive. I came away with an understanding that, supervised only by my own conscience, I could create amazing things for people on my own.
I coerced my parents into letting me see Breakin again, on a visit to my grandparents’ house in Florida. There was some linoleum set up outside the theater with all-day “breakdancing lessons”—sanctioned by the cinema—and I vividly remember popping and locking “against” this other 10-year-old and reminding myself that I was supposed to look tough while I did it. I got the soundtrack on that same trip. “Reckless” by Ice-T was obviously the best thing on it, so I played it on my grandparents’ record player over and over, practicing my moves for hours alone by myself. I was Julia Stiles. I could sense that there was a whole ‘nother type of scene out there where people made their own kind of fun, and these movies suggested that if I danced hard enough, and adventurously enough, I could find it, no matter who I was.